This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
At the lower end of our village, the valley is joined by a deep ravine through which a sequestered road—hidden by hawthorn hedges, and crossed by numerous watercourses where the hillside streams, dropping from rocks of shale, ripple towards a trout-brook feeding the main river—winds into the quiet country. The rugged sides of the ravine are thickly clothed with gorse and brambles, and dotted with hazels, willows, and oaks. This dense cover is inhabited by large numbers of rabbits; in a sheltered hollow half-way up the slope a badger has dug his " set" ; and in the pastures above the thickets a fox may be seen prowling on almost any moonlit night. Past the gorge, the glen opens out in rich, level pastures and meadows bounded on either side by the hills. The nearest farmsteads are built high among the sunny dingles overlooking the glen, and the corn and the root-crops are grown on the slope beyond the broad belts of gorse and bramble.
In winter, the low-lying lands are seldom visited by the peasantry, except when the dairymaid drives the cattle to and fro, or the hedger trims the undergrowth along the ditches. Though the sportsman with gun and spaniels and the huntsman with horse and hounds are frequently heard in the thickets, they never visit the " bottom," unless the partridges fly down from the stubble, or the hare, pursued by the beagles, takes a straight line from the far side of the glen to a sheep-path leading up the gorge. And in summer, except when the fisherman wanders by the brook, and the haymakers are busy in the grass, the glen is an undisturbed sanctuary, given over to Nature's wildlings, where, in safety, as far as man is concerned, they tend their hidden young.
In this quiet, windless place, on the day when first the haymakers came to the meadows, five little hedgehogs were born in a nest among the roots of a tree, deep in the undergrowth of a tangled hedgerow. The nest was made of dry grass and leaves, and with an entrance so arranged amid the "trash," that, when the parent hedgehogs went to or from their home, they pushed their way through a heap of dead herbage, which, falling behind them, hid the passage from inquisitive eyes.
It may be asked why such a warm retreat was necessary, inasmuch as the hedgehog sucklings came into the world in the hottest time of the year. Nature's reasons were, however, all-sufficient; the little creatures, feeble and blind, needed a secure hiding place, screened from the changeful wind of night and from every roving enemy. The haymakers, moving to and fro amid the swathes, knew nothing of the hedgehogs' whereabouts; but when the dews of night lay thick on the strewn wild flowers, the parent "urchins," leaving their helpless charges asleep within their nest, wondered greatly, while they hunted for snails and slugs in the ditch, at the quick change that had passed over the silent field.
For a week or more, the spines sprouting from round projections on the bodies of the young hedgehogs were colourless and blunt, and so flexible that they could have offered no defence against the teeth or the claws of an enemy; while every muscle was so soft and feeble that not one of the little animals was as yet able to roll itself into the shape of a ball. The spines, however, served a useful purpose: they kept the tender skin beneath from being irritated by the chance touch of the mother hedgehog's obtrusive quills.
Soon the baby hedgehogs' eyes opened wide to the pale light filtering between the leaves at the entrance to the chamber, and their spines, gradually stiffening, assumed a dull grey colour. Then, one still, dark night, the little creatures, with great misgiving, followed their parents from the nest, and wandered for a short distance beside the tangled hedge. Presently, made tired and sleepy and hungry by exercise and fresh air, they were led back to their secret retreat, where, after being tended for a few moments by their careful mother, they fell asleep, while their parents searched diligently for food in the dense grass-clumps left by the harvesters amid the briars and the furze.
Henceforth, every night, they ventured, under their mother's care, to roam afield, their journeys becoming longer and still longer as their strength increased, till, familiar with the hedgerow paths, they were ready and eager to learn the rudiments of such field-craft as concerned their unpretending fives.
A glorious summer, far brighter than is usual among the rainy hills of the west, brooded over the countryside. The days were calm and sunny, but with the coming of evening occasional mists drifted along the dingles and scattered pearl-drops on the after-math; and the nights were warm and starlit, filled with the silence of the wilderness, which only Nature's children break. The "calling season" for the hare had long since passed, and for the fox it had not yet arrived; so the voices of the two greatest wanderers on the countryside were not at this time heard.
A doe hare had made her "form" hardly twenty yards from the hedgehogs' nest, and night after night, just when the "urchins" moved down the hedge from the old tree-root, she ambled by on her way to the clover-field above the heath.
Once, a little before dawn, a fox, coming to drink at the brook, detected the scent of the hedgehogs near a molehill, followed it to the litter of leaves by the tree, and caused considerable alarm by making a vigorous attempt to dig out the nest; but, probably because of the dampness of the loamy soil, he failed to determine the exact whereabouts of the hedgehog family; and, after breaking a tooth in his vain efforts to cut through a tough, close-fibred root, he made his way along the hedge, and soon disappeared over the crest of the moonlit hill. But the next night, when the wind blew strong, and the rain pattered loudly on the leafy trees, he came again to the "urchins'" haunt. The doe hare had long since rustled by, and the hedgehogs were busy munching a cluster of earthworms discovered in a heap of refuse not far from the gate, when Reynard stole over the fence-bank, and sniffed at the nest. Not finding the family at home, he followed their scent through the ditch, and soon surprised them. To kill one of the tiny "urchins" was the work of a moment; then, made eager by the taste of blood, the fox turned on the mother hedgehog and tried to fix his fangs in the soft flesh beneath the armour of her spines. But, feeling at once his warm breath, she, with a quick contraction of the muscles, rolled herself into a prickly ball, and remained proof against his every artifice. He was a young fox, not yet learned in the wiles of Nature's feebler folk, and so, when he had recovered from his astonishment, he pounced on the rigid creature, and, thoughtlessly exerting all his strength, endeavoured to rend her in pieces with his powerful jaws. He paid dearly for his temerity. The prickly ball rolled over, under the pressure of his fore-paws, the sharp points of the spines entered the bare flesh behind his pads, and as, almost falling to the ground, he bit savagely to right and left in the fit of anger which now possessed him, his mouth and nostrils dripped blood from a dozen irritating wounds. Thoroughly discomfited, he leaped back into the field, where, sick with pain, he endeavoured to gain relief by rubbing his muzzle vigorously in the grass and against his aching limbs. Then, sneezing violently, and with his mouth encrusted with froth and loam, he bolted from the scene of his unpleasant adventure, never pausing till he reached his "earth" on the hillside, in which, hidden from the mocking gaze of other prowlers of the night, he could leisurely salve his wounds with the moisture of his soft, warm tongue, and ponder over the lessons of his recent experience.